by Breda O’Brien
When reading some of the 2015 coverage of Graham O’Dwyer’s murder of Elaine O’ Hara, one line jumped out at me. It said that Graham Dwyer could have pleaded that Elaine O’Hara died in a dangerous sex game gone wrong but instead, pushed for acquittal.
It struck me so forcibly because of another, more recent case, involving 33-year-old Sophie Moss from Darlington, England. She had physical and mental health issues, including alcohol abuse and lived apart from two beloved small children.
Sam Pybus strangled her during sex, an act he said “she encouraged and enjoyed”. Pybus had been drinking heavily beforehand. After Moss lost consciousness, Pybus sat in his car for 15 minutes before turning himself in to police. He did not attempt to resuscitate her or to call an ambulance.
He was originally charged with murder but a Home Office pathologist found that the amount of pressure applied to Ms Moss’s neck was towards the lower end of cases that resulted in death.
This September, he received a sentence of four years and eight months. Harriet Harman MP has formally requested that the case be referred to the Court of Appeal under the “unduly lenient sentence” scheme. She commented that the sentence proclaims that “killing your girlfriend during sex is a minor matter”.
Many of this generation – particulalry those aged 40 and under – have grown accustomed to the idea that plain, vanilla sex is for squares and prudes. Women have been trained to believe that it is empowering to ask a man to choke them. Women’s magazines normalise it as “breath play”. Suggesting that there might be anything wrong with this potentially lethal practice, is dismissed as kink-shaming.
Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, realised in the 1920s that women were a large, untapped market that could dramatically enhance tobacco companies’ profits. So he started the “Torches of Freedom” campaign, portraying smoking as a potent symbol of freedom and rebellion. He persuaded 30 women to take part in the 1929 Easter parade in New York while smoking. One of his newspaper advertisements for Lucky Strikes had the headline “Women are free! An ancient prejudice has been removed”.
Decades later, Bernays regretted that campaign but the damage was done. Exactly the same is happening with the normalisation of potentially deadly sexual practices. Women are told that being tied up, cut with knives, spat on and strangled are all evidence of newfound freedom instead of just being good old-fashioned misogyny.
More than one in three UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex, according to research conducted with 2,000 women for BBC Radio 5 Live.
The usual response to this is that we need more education on negotiating what each partner is comfortable with and on consent. The pathetic naivete of thinking that consent can be in any way real when both men and women have been indoctrinated by violent, misogynistic pornography would be laughable if it did not end with women being brain-damaged or lying in mortuaries.
We need a public awareness campaign about the dangers of being choked by someone. Strangulation is a red flag in situations of domestic violence. Women who have been subjected to non-fatal strangulation are eight times more likely to be murdered subsequently.
Why is something that is a red flag in domestic violence considered acceptable in intimate relationships? We Can’t Consent To This, an advocacy group campaigning for the end to the so-called rough sex defence in murder trials, published a summary of a systematic review of the effects of non-fatal strangulation, which was conducted by North Wales Brain Injury Service and Bangor University.
It is common for strangulation to leave no visible signs of injury and consequences can be delayed by days or weeks. These include stroke, cardiac arrest, miscarriage, incontinence, seizures, memory loss and long-term brain injury.
Consciousness can be lost after as little as four seconds of arterial pressure. Blocking the jugular vein can take less pressure than opening a can of cola. Loss of consciousness indicates at the very least, a mild brain injury. Strangulation may be the second most common cause of stroke in women under 40.
While premeditated predators should continue to be convicted of murder, perhaps we need a bespoke manslaughter offence of causing death or serious injury through dangerous sexual activity, with a statutory provision that consent to that activity is not a defence. It would be an offence analogous to causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving. England and Wales recently passed legislation reinforcing the common law understanding that no one can consent to serious harm or death in intimate relationships. It did not prevent Pybus receiving a lenient sentence. We need more.
Legislation has many functions, including raising public awareness and empowering victims. Creating an offence of causing death or serious injury through dangerous sexual activity would demonstrate that strangulation is not just some private kink.
If we can instil the belief that violence, even consensual violence, is always a red flag in intimate relationships, we might have fewer tragedies like Elaine O’Hara and Sophie Moss.